Help Your Dog Succeed in the Messy Learning Environment of Real Life

Channel your inner scientist to leverage learning theory with real-life complications.

Have you ever taught your dog something at home and then watched it fall apart 3 feet outside your door? If so, neither you nor your dog is a failure. It's just the way life and learning works: messy, nonlinear, sometimes frustrating, but also fascinating!

Dogs Learn in 2 Main Ways

  1. In a particular context, doing X results in Y. Known as operant conditioning, this is denoted as Antecedent -> Behavior -> Consequence. A: I'm holding a treat. B: My dog sits. C: My dog receives the treat.

  2. X predicts Y. Known as classical conditioning, this describes how dogs make associations. X: Person pick up the leash predicts Y: A dog walk is about to happen.

It gets messy when you try to work with all those ABC's, X's, and Y's in real life. And the two types of learning can happen simultaneously. Total chaos!!

Channel Your Inner Scientist

If you start thinking about when, what, and how things happen with your dog, you can get a better idea of how to set up your dog for success.

  • What is the context when asking your dog to do something? Are there lots of distractions? Is your dog more motivated by the environment than by what you have to offer?

  • When thinking about predictions and learning by association, start looking for patterns. Take a wide view, though. We can't control which event your dog is noticing. Is it grabbing the leash, or putting on your sneakers that predicts the walk? Is it the doorbell or the sound of footsteps that your dog notices?

  • In addition to considering the environment, become a keen observer of your dog's body language. Look for signs of interest, enthusiasm, fear, stress, etc. You can learn how to predict your dog's comfort and ability to learn in varied environments.

If you can embrace the messiness of learning, you and your dog can weather the ups and downs of life together. Just keep showing up for your dog and you'll both get smarter by the day!

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